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PD Editorial: Another threat to fishing communities

These are uneasy time for California’s commercial fishing industry.

An unprecedented delay in crabbing season is now in its fourth month, and there’s a growing likelihood that the 2015-16 season will be lost entirely.

Prospects for a bountiful salmon season aren’t much brighter.

This winter’s storms are delivering some relief to a drought-parched state, but three dry years decimated salmon runs on the critically important Klamath and Sacramento rivers, which almost certainly means strict catch limits again this year, if not a repeat of the 2008-09 closure of California’s salmon fishery. Next year probably won’t be any better.

In fishing-dependent communities from Crescent City to Monterey, residents are looking to Washington with an uneasy mix of hope and alarm.

Some financial help may be forthcoming for fishermen stuck in port by the ongoing closure of the Dungeness and rock crab fisheries if Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker issues a disaster declaration and Congress appropriates funds requested by Reps. Jared Huffman and Jackie Speier.

However, any near-term assistance could be more than offset by renewed efforts to divert more water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California cities. If that happens, it threatens further devastation for salmon fisheries and the communities they sustain.

A bill passed by the House of Representatives would run roughshod over existing laws, science-based regulatory mechanisms and federal court rulings that protect the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its endangered salmon runs. The bill, sponsored by GOP Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, gives water diversions first priority and puts taxpayers on the hook for costly new dams that won’t deliver any drought relief.

Conflicts over water are nothing new in California, but Central Valley representatives glommed onto the drought to further a years-long campaign to obtain more water for irrigation.

“When science hasn’t worked, the courts haven’t worked, they’re relying on old-fashion politics,” Barry Nelson of the Golden Gate Salmon Association told The Press Democrat Editorial Board. “They’re trying to gut (environmental) standards.”

Californians have relied on Sen. Dianne Feinstein to protect them from fiscally irresponsible and environmentally unsound water grabs like the one passed by the House.

Feinstein has worked long and hard to broker a compromise serving the interests of agriculture - an important California industry - without imperiling the environment or fishing - another signature California industry.

She deserves great credit for her efforts, but fishing interests and conservation groups fear that the water bill she introduced last month lacks adequate safeguards for the Delta and the salmon whose continued existence is dependent on its restoration. We share those concerns.

Feinstein said drafting the 184-page bill was the most difficult task during her 23 years in Washington. It includes laudable elements, including investments in habitat restoration and funding for water recycling and desalination. The bill also creates a low-interest, long-term loan program for infrastructure projects supported by North Bay water and sanitation agencies.

But it also includes numerous provisions that shift the balance in favor of irrigation supplies, which is inconsistent with the state of California’s co-equal goals of providing a reliable water supply and protecting the Delta eco-system. Moreover, scientists would be pressured to seek ways to maximize pumping Delta water into the canals feeding the Central Valley and Southern California.

Many House members viewing Feinstein’s proposal as the opening bid in negotiations on a final piece of legislation that would combine elements of the House and Senate bills, so it’s hard to see how the terms can get better for fishing-dependent communities on the North Coast. But with their livelihood already in peril, those communities can’t afford to have the terms get any worse.

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